I made it back from the DPRK a bit over a week ago, having enjoyed another couple of days in the capital, as well as a day out in Kaesong and at the DMZ. With this, I suppose I have officially joined to the odd group of travelers who have been to the Northern side of the DMZ more than they’ve been to the South.
The main goal of this trip was to attend the Mass Games “Arirang” show before its likely demise next year. The Mass Games succeed in drawing relatively large crowds, filling May Day stadium—the biggest stadium in the world—many weeks in a row. Granted, Chinese visitors largely outnumber westerners, but there is something almost a little “touristy” about attending a performance, with DVDs and t-shirts on sale inside and outside the stadium. Itineraries built around the Mass Games are therefore often pretty standard, featuring “safe” attractions such as a visit to the statues of the Leaders, a one-stop metro ride, and a children’s show. While I did have a more enthralling experience back in April, it was interesting to witness the execution of a well-oiled itinerary where things typically “just work” (which was definitely not the case in April.) Visitors who fly in and out, and therefore don’t get a peek at the countryside, might almost leave with the feeling that they visited a slightly odd, but overall quite normal place, except perhaps for the fact that there’s no WiFi at the hotel.
One particularly interesting aspect of traveling to the DPRK twice in less than six months, though, is the ability to witness changes. “Change” seems to be a keyword in all recent news surrounding the DPRK—some speculate about it, some hope for it, some bet on it, some deny it—but most observers agree that something is happening. While it is difficult for the naked eye to draw a concise, scientific or objective picture of what change entails, I observed the following:
- The ambience in Pyongyang felt more laid back than in April. I saw numerous families and groups of young people who appeared to be genuinely having a good time, just strolling around and going about their daily business. I do believe that Koreans are joyous, cheerful people, who want to enjoy life just like any other people in the world—widespread, typical descriptions of doom and gloom and of automatons regimented by higher powers are a gross overstatement. However, it is true that daily lives are largely, if not almost exclusively, devoted to work, government and family duties, and that infrastructure (both urban and rural) is lacking, making the simple acts of going to work or catering to one’s family needs challenging. Lately the government has been putting an emphasis on developing leisure facilities: swimming pools, an amusement park, a dolphinarium, a health club, and a resort-like recreation area were all inaugurated over the last few months by the respected Kim Jong Un. The infamous ban barring women from wearing pants and riding bicycles in Pyongyang has been lifted. While none of this equates to freedom, and while the aforementioned highly publicized leisure facilities are probably only accessible to the outer and top elite, these developments may still have an impact on daily lives. I can’t give any scientific value to my observations, but I just felt a more positive vibe on the streets of Pyongyang.
- I noticed new LED street lights. While the bulk of Pyongyang remains dark at nights, more streets are now lit. Perhaps the West should actually feel inspired to leverage this efficient technology…
- More generally speaking, cheap and efficient Chinese lighting is giving the city a hipper face—at nights, major buildings are outlined in bright colors with changing patterns. It isn’t quite the Hong Kong light show yet, but it is a departure from the image of a city in gray hues. (I believe that this setup was actually completed back in April in time for the celebrations, but I didn’t see it, most likely because I wasn’t staying at the Yanggakdo, which features sweeping views on the city center.)
- People have moved into the new Pyongyang Mansudae housing project. The entire area feels alive and bustling with energy. The official word is that these new, modern buildings house typical middle class Pyongyang families and are not reserved to the elite. Those who lived in the same area before and were relocated during construction were given priority. It is extremely difficult to verify any of these claims, but word has it that the buildings, while modern outside, are actually rather basic inside (and propaganda videos show residents opening their kitchen faucets with pride, which hints at a pretty low bar,) so this is believable.
- City trolley buses are being refurbished and adorn a new paint scheme with a vivid, colorful wave pattern, giving the city a refreshed, more pleasant face. Interestingly, though, when I brought this up with my guide, she was very reluctant to sharing any information and appeared to be somehow uncomfortable with the topic. She kept repeating that buses are color coded, each line having a different color, and that these buses had always been around. I insisted on the fact that these vehicles were definitely not in circulation during my previous trip 5 months ago… Eventually she said “yes, they’re new buses” and abruptly changed the topic. I’m not sure why. In fact, the ongoing refurbishment is hardly confidential information since I found out later that the effort was called out, with supporting pictures, in the September issue of the DPRK newsmagazine.
- Air Koryo now uses e-tickets, and has a website, which opened a few weeks ago. While the service seldom works and will most definitely not impact the daily lives of most Koreans, it is a noteworthy symbol of opening. Interestingly, the web site is devoid of all propaganda. The booking engine is pretty user-friendly and even offers services such as assistance and wheelchairs. The only challenging detail is that nothing seems to remind potential adventurous customers that private, individual travel is simply not permitted. (And I wouldn’t bet that Pyongyang airport has wheelchairs.)
- The new leader is finally playing at the center of the stage. While he delivered a major speech on 4/15 on Kim Il Sung’s square, he appeared to be nowhere to be seen at the time, be it in the media or perhaps even in the hearts and minds of Koreans. Questions about his whereabouts and personality went unanswered. Things have changed, the propaganda machine has revved up, the traditional billboards for foreigners (in every hotel, restaurant, and public facility) that used to describe the exploits of President Kim Il Sung now feature a retrospective of the 100th anniversary celebrated in April, placing Kim Jung Un at the center.
Overall, infrastructure is being upgraded, the capital is adopting a more cheerful face, and there might even be a wind of happiness on the horizon.
While none of these events may be of particular significance on their own, it is the timeline that makes them stand out. Change might be in the air. It is hard to predict what it will look like in the end, and one should be very cautious before predicting substantial increases in individual freedom or a move into a China-like direction, but one thing is certain: seeing history in motion is truly fascinating.
As for the details of my trip, I will share them down the road, but here are a couple of tidbits as a teaser :):
- I flew from Beijing on Air Koryo, the DPRK’s flag carrier, on a Tupolev 154, a very reliable machine, save for the fact that it belongs to a museum. Onboard, we enjoyed the shortest security demo ever, since there are no oxygen masks, no life vests, and overhead bins don’t close. The airline typically tries to run one of their two recent Tupolev 204 on this flagship route, but, as it turns out, an official in Pyongyang needed our aircraft, as well as our flight time. So, our flight schedule changed on a short notice and we got to enjoy a vintage aircraft. That being said, it was a smooth flight, with flight attendants wearing white gloves a full hot meal service.
- Airport controls seemed pretty laid back, especially compared to my experience on the train in April. One person even held on to their cell phone inadvertently (but was questioned, albeit briefly, on the way out.)
- The Yanggakdo, Pyongyang’s premier foreigners’ hotel, basically just works. It is the pinnacle of luxury compared to the properties that I stayed at in April. While the design is straight out of the 70s, there is no propaganda, and rooms feature Yanggakdo-branded amenities such as toothbrushes and slippers, Hans Grohe bath fixtures, and an electronic safe. The basement is just gloomy, though. And as far as the secret 5th floor is concerned, it’s unfortunately not accessible anymore despite my best attempts, but I still saw some interesting tidbits outside the floors for tourists.
- Pyongyang is not an unattractive city, and has a rather pleasant layout. I had more time to walk around the (nice) parts of the city this time around, and went up the Juche Tower as well as the revolving restaurant at the Yanggakdo. There is something to be said about planning, it does work to some extent. The city has definite potential. With a bit more liveliness, it could go a long way.
- I got stuck in a traffic jam downtown Pyongyang. For real.
- I visited the new amusement park recently inaugurated by the dear respected Kim Jong Un. Of course I went on all the rides, which gave me a chance to try the Supreme Commander’s favorite. I read that he rode it to verify its safety, prior to its opening for the people. I can indeed attest to making it back onto the ground without incident after revolving high above Pyongyang.
- May Day stadium is beautiful and festive and the Mass Games are like nothing else in the world. While it is difficult to assess or even comprehend the human cost, the show is truly grand.
- I experienced my first power cut. It was brief and nothing to write home about, yet, it is interesting that power never failed in April during the celebrations—I understand that coal trucks were forming a line outside Pyongyang’s plant at the time…
- I gathered a fascinating piece of information about the Pyongyang metro.
- I danced a lot—with the waitresses at the Duck BBQ restaurant, and with Koreans celebrating National Day on Moran Hill. These are memories to be cherished.
In pictures: Sep. 2012 trip highlights